It has been a week since Bill Cosby delivered a series of blistering comments about the parenting skills and personal values of low-income blacks, and the phone lines into Joe Madison's morning show on WOL-AM are still jammed.
Like many of his callers, Madison is conflicted about Cosby's speech at a Constitution Hall gala celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling. He said he thinks Cosby touched on truths about the black community's failure to take responsibility for high school dropout rates, unwed mothers and young men in prison.
And then, he also thought the famed comedian and author went too far.
"Cosby went overboard when he absolved white America and the government of any responsibility for the ills of the poor black community," Madison said. "He made it seem like the problems affecting black people in the community are pathological. You can't paint the poor black community with a broad brush."
Cosby's speech, delivered late on May 17, received scant press attention at first.
"I am talking about these people who cry when their son is standing there in an orange suit," Cosby said. "Where were you when he was 2? Where were you when he was 12? Where were you when he was 18, and how come you didn't know that he had a pistol? . . . In all of this work, we cannot blame white people."
As word of his comments spread, so did the reaction -- on talk radio, in churches and high schools and among law enforcement officials and black leaders.
NAACP Executive Director Kweisi Mfume, who hugged Cosby after his speech, said he agreed with most of what he said.
"The issue of personal responsibility is real," he said. "A lot of people didn't want him to say what he said because it was an open forum. But if the truth be told, he was on target."
Mfume did part company with Cosby when he said that people from "lower socioeconomic" groups have not kept their end of the deal when it came to realizing the promise of Brown.
"It is not just the lower socioeconomic groups, it is the new black millionaires, the new wealthy as well," Mfume said. "We all need to take more responsibility, not just poor people."
Prince George's County State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D) said he thought Cosby's comments were "over the top" but with a "kernel of truth in it."
A lot of African Americans, he said, are asking, "What is up with our community right now?"
Particularly troubling is an "opt out" mentality -- students who won't go to school or take advantage of opportunities that past generations fought so hard for.
"There's this sort of subculture battle that needs to take place, and I think that's what Bill Cosby was getting at."
Others assailed Cosby as out of touch with the realities of African American life, especially some of the negative consequences of the Brown decision.
"That decision resulted in total cultural and historical surrender," the Rev. Willie Wilson, pastor of Southeast Washington's Union Temple Baptist Church, said as he finished a meeting yesterday with clergy and city officials on a plan to curb youth violence.
"We gave up many of the things that kept us together as a people. We walked away from our own hospitals, we walked away from our own banks, we walked away from thousands of businesses because embedded in our minds was that all that was black was inherently inferior."
Younger blacks also have issues with Cosby, who derided "people with their hats on backwards, pants down around the crack."
Ciara Banks, 16, a junior at Ballou Senior High School in Southeast Washington, said she conforms to some of that description but still maintains a 3.25 grade point average while playing basketball, softball and track.
"You can't always judge someone because of how they dress," Banks said. "I wear my hat backwards but I maintain my grade point average all year."
Cosby said in an interview after his speech that he was motivated to say something after listening to D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, who called for better parenting. Ramsey, who attended a community vigil Monday night for the 12-year-old girl who was wounded by a stray bullet while sitting on her front porch in the Petworth neighborhood of Northwest Washington, said yesterday that he had no qualms about the debate he has ignited.
"People yell about us enforcing the curfew, but the real issue is, why don't you know where your child is," Ramsey said. "You can't rid all of the social ills with parenting. Government services have to be coordinated with families who are in need."
Ramsey said that he applauded the effort to provide more jobs to youths this summer but that some teenagers need more than a paycheck. "Unfortunately, some are almost unemployable because they don't have interpersonal and social skills to interact with others," he said.
Ramsey did point to one recent bright spot: a graduation exercise he attended for 14 youths who had been arrested for stealing cars. He said that 11 of the 14 youth offenders completed the program and that their lives have totally changed because they learned about taking responsibility for their actions.
"I was so happy," he said. "This was a small victory that shows that it is not too late for someone to turn their life around."